Friday, February 28, 2014

Sociopaths in media: Collateral

From a reader:
I loved the movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as Vincent the hitman and Jamie Foxx as the largely hapless cab driver, particularly this clip. Here’s the set up: Maxx is a cab driver with dreams of owning his own limo service. He’s been driving his taxi for 12 years, telling himself all the while that he is planning and saving money, awaiting the perfect time to start his own business. When Vincent gets into the backseat of his cab, Maxx assumes he’s just another fare. He is of course dead wrong. Vincent forces Maxx to act as his driver, ferrying him to various locations around LA to kill everyone on his to-do list.
In this scene, Vincent and Maxx have just escaped a hectic shoot out at a nightclub. Vincent has killed the 4th of the 5 victims on his hit list and Maxx attempted to escape during the melee with the help of detective Fanning. Just when it seemed as if Maxx and Fanning would make it, Vincent shoots the detective, thinking he was doing Maxx a favor. As you will see, Maxx has an epiphany of sorts after being confronted with Vincent’s harsh but truthful views.

I really liked this movie. The performances were terrific. Contrasting Fox’s passive everyman with Cruise’s uber disciplined sociopath made for a thematically interesting dynamic. The scene was, in a nutshell, an insightful look at how sociopaths see empaths better than they see themselves. I wonder though, is Vincent really a sociopath or is his career choice simply an inevitable result of his philosophical nihilism? Not that it matters to any of his victims.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

More on flexible sense of self (part 2)

I was once in a forest of extremely tall trees. They were centuries old, and most of them looked majestic but some of them looked odd because they were growing in such an awkward position. Some were growing in the middle of a rock, maybe, with roots stretched out over the rock, or on the edge of a cliff, roots all exposed. Probably it was not smart for these trees to choose to grow in those locations, but of course trees do not know any better. They do not have eyes. They do not even have the ability to choose where they grow. They're just growing blind. They don't know what they look like or understand even what they're supposed to look like. All they do is encounter the world and adapt  -- blindly, but in the only way they know how. It reminded me of this Annemarie Roeper quote from her book "The 'I' of the Beholder"

You have your own agenda, your inner mandate. This mandate originates from all sorts of sources. It moves in all sorts of directions but functions as a unit. It becomes a life force. You are destined to grow a certain way, as is the flower and all living beings. Sometimes flowers persist in growing even between hard rocks. Their life force can compel them to grow in unexpected places, but they cannot grow well if they aren’t nurtured. Sometimes they get crippled and unhappy and cannot grow much. But other times, persistent strength may move the rock out of their way.

This is exactly the fate of human Selves when they encounter the world outside. They must follow their agenda. So, yes, there is a plot, but the course of this plot is not predictable, because we don’t know how interaction with the world changes its course. It is the greatest drama in the world.

Sometimes I look at my Down Syndrome relatives and try to imagine what they would look like with identical genetics but without the extra chromosome. Do people wonder that? Who would I be if I were raised in some primitive culture on an island somewhere? Or raised by actual wolves? I always ask my musician friends whether they think they would have stuck with it as much or even gone farther if they had just chosen a different instrument to play. It's sort of odd to me, these people who have a very strong sense of self. Do they not feel the arbitrariness of that self like I do?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

More on flexible sense of self (part 1)

I used to be terrible at writing. I got terrible marks on it in school, but I never understood what I was doing wrong. In high school I got by having my mother read my papers and edit them. Sometimes she would ask, "you're actually learning something from this, aren't you? I'm not just doing your work for you?" And I would say yes, but I wasn't. It wasn't trying to shirk, I just honestly didn't understand or value it enough to learn. In college I just got bad grades in paper classes, so I avoided them. I stayed terrible into law school, where I learned a highly technical version of writing that finally made some sense to me. I even became an editor, but I still struggled. Only recently have felt like I finally understand writing to the point where I can recognize how/when my writing is flawed. It's been really crazy to have the book published. It feels sort of like maybe having a stutter all of my life and then becoming an opera singer out of the blue. Now I sometimes edit my brother's papers that he is trying to get published. His writing is terrible in all of the same ways that mine still inclines and so I often have the chance to reflect on how much my writing has changed.

I've had other similar experiences. Becoming self-aware of who I am (manipulative, ruthless, unempathetic, etc.) was a watershed moment. I even used to be terrible at music, particularly jazz improvisation, until one day it just clicked and I can play solos over any sort of chord changes. Again, both of these changes were huge. It's as if one day I woke up being able to slam dunk a basketball or run a five minute mile. And I worked for all of it, but there was some sort of cognitive block keeping me from really internalizing the concepts until suddenly there wasn't.

In some ways I guess this is why I am so bullish on the possibility of living my life one way and then finally discovering a new way to live. It's one of the hidden benefits from having a weak sense of self --  there's not that much of an attachment to who I currently am. Maybe one day I will have changed so much that I no longer identify as a sociopath? Because even that identification did not really come from within, but from seeing the way people reacted to me -- their expectations of me and the way that I met, failed, or exceeded those expectations. I liked this quote from Annemarie Roeper about this from her book "The 'I' of the Beholder":

We don’t really understand our Selves or what life is. It is a mystery, and this fact is hard to accept. Humankind has developed many theories about you and believes they are facts, but in the end, all we can see is your behavior, your reactions to the world around you, and the world’s reaction to you.

So not only are we constantly changing (and have such an incredible ability to change), but our sense of self changes as the world changes, and consequently our reactions to the world and the world's reaction to us. I wonder what most sociopaths would look like if the world's reaction to us were more positive.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Richard 'The Iceman" Kuklinski

A reader writes:
Definitely worth watching all of the interviews/documentaries (and HBO has made a few over the years) with famed mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, especially the one with the psychiatrist.

What is especially relevant to your blog would be the the end of the interview, where the psychiatrist does a pretty good job explaining in succinct terms the genetic and environmental causes of ASPD and how both factors work together, in a way that makes a lot of sense without having to bring a lot of biological jargon into it, and without having to resort to chicken/egg arguments.

Kuklinski's anxiety and contained anger while listening to him is palpable.

The very end is quite powerful.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The adaptable brain

If you believe that there is at least some genetic component to sociopathy, is it possible to find a workaround? This recent Oliver Sacks article from the New York Times discusses the incredible adaptability of the brain:
While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas — especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older. In fact, the brain has an astonishing ability to rebound from damage — even from something as devastating as the loss of sight or hearing. As a physician who treats patients with neurological conditions, I see this happen all the time.

For example, one patient of mine who had been deafened by scarlet fever at the age of 9, was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. “I can no longer hear you,” she said sharply.

“You mean you can no longer see me,” I said.

“You may call it seeing,” she answered, “but I experience it as hearing.”

Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed for this patient into “hearing” the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation into another.

In a similar way, blind people often find ways of “seeing.” Some areas of the brain, if not stimulated, will atrophy and die. (“Use it or lose it,” neurologists often say.) But the visual areas of the brain, even in someone born blind, do not entirely disappear; instead, they are redeployed for other senses. We have all heard of blind people with unusually acute hearing, but other senses may be heightened, too.
The writer Ved Mehta, also blind since early childhood, navigates in large part by using “facial vision” — the ability to sense objects by the way they reflect sounds, or subtly shift the air currents that reach his face. Ben Underwood, a remarkable boy who lost his sight at 3 and died at 16 in 2009, developed an effective, dolphin-like strategy of emitting regular clicks with his mouth and reading the resulting echoes from nearby objects. He was so skilled at this that he could ride a bike and play sports and even video games.

People like Ben Underwood and Ved Mehta, who had some early visual experience but then lost their sight, seem to instantly convert the information they receive from touch or sound into a visual image — “seeing” the dots, for instance, as they read Braille with a finger. Researchers using functional brain imagery have confirmed that in such situations the blind person activates not only the parts of the cortex devoted to touch, but parts of the visual cortex as well.

One does not have to be blind or deaf to tap into the brain’s mysterious and extraordinary power to learn, adapt and grow. I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even dementia — learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits.

That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can.
Can my brain adapt too?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sociopath quote: self-control

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”


UPDATE: I've been thinking why I have bothered to learn self-control. I think the obvious is that I am able to accomplish much more in my life if I don't give into every impulse but instead spend just a moment contemplating the potential ramifications. Another less obvious reason is that if I don't have control over myself, other people will be able to exploit those vulnerabilities in me by intentionally triggering me. I know all about this because I intentionally trigger people's rages myself, to provoke what most people consider "disgusting behavior".

(I love how the "victim" is smiling in this video.)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sociopath police: True Detective

In hacker culture, there are different color "hats" of people. White hat means you basically just ensure that systems are unhackable. Black hat hackers are the opposite, they're out there looking for vulnerabilities and exploiting them. Grey hackers are somewhere in between. Maybe they're breaking laws, but usually it's not malicious, or it's at least for a "good reason," whatever that may be to them.

I started watching True Detective, an HBO television series, and while I wouldn't say that any of the characters seem obviously sociopathic, by the time the mystery gets solved we'll probably realize that somebody is. For our protagonists we have a couple of cops. With giving too much away, the straight man, Marty Hart played by Woody Harrelson, makes questionable moral decisions. At one point his partner asks him what it is like to live a life sans guilt. His partner is not much better. Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a master of compartmentalizing and situational ethics. Sometimes it seems like he is a deeply moral person (he spends a long scene explaining how unethical it is to bring children into this world, yanking them out of nonexistence), but he is also perfectly willing to kill people should the right situation present itself. He is nihilistic, but congratulates his partner after doing something completely unlawful: "Good to see you commit to something". It's not that he doesn't believe in right and wrong, he just had a different view than almost anyone else you would meet (but could it be just a sociopathic code? And actually, Marty's version of right and wrong is only superficially Judeo-Christian. When it comes down to it, they both have a very flexible sense of morality). Cohle is also insanely cool under pressure, is famed throughout the are for reading people, and is an extremely persuasive guy when he wants to be.

Is one of these characters a sociopath? Both? If they are, they are not black hat. Marty comes off as white hat, gradually seems more gray, and some think he's actually black. Cohle comes off as grey, sometimes creeps darker towards black, and every once in a while says something extremely white. But maybe that is more reflective of what he has chosen to do with his life to give himself some sense of purpose. When Marty asks him what's the point of getting out of bed in the morning if he believes life is meaningless, Cohle answers "I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide." Sound like something you might say, sociopaths? But this is coming from a man whose definition of honorable behavior would be for human kind to "deny our programming; stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal." So I don't know.

Or maybe they're just cops. I heard a rumor once that police get their personality tested for sociopathic traits -- you have to have at least some but not too many. That doesn't surprise me, with police officers being in the top 10 jobs for sociopaths. And even if you weren't a cop, I bet dealing with some of that stuff and the frustrations of not actually being able to do much good in the world would eventually leave you pretty morally jaded.

Whatever these two characters are, the themes, plot devices, and overall flavor of the show are sociopathic and both sociopath and empath readers are likely to relate with one or both main characters, oddly enough. (At least at times.)

My favorite line after raiding the cocaine in the police evidence room, "They really should have a better system for this."

Friday, February 21, 2014

The truth, the whole truth, and maybe some other stuff

An IM conversation with a friend about the nature of the blog.
Friend: [after many questions about the blog] Does it disturb you that I am reading your blog now? And commenting in real time? If so, I will stop.

M.E.: No it’s fine, if you’re interested, I’m interested.

Friend: All this stuff is very self-aggrandizing, but it seems consistent with your analysis of sociopaths, which I think you should address somewhere because I bet it is a major critique of clinicians.

M.E.: What do you mean?

Friend: The generalizations, the pronouncements about tendencies, reasons, etc., they are dubious, and so clinicians must be like, ugh, I dont think so. But the point is that sociopaths are nuts.

M.E.: Yeah, I can see that. I write so self-assuredly, answering people’s questions as if I have all of the answers and the clinicians must be thinking that I’m deluded or just plain wrong. But you’re right, that’s part of the portrayal, I think. Everything is just my point of view. This is how I see things, and if my opinions are deluded, they are deluded in an interesting way, I hope.

Friend: Right.

M.E.: I'm not trying to go for balanced info, I'm just talking out of my ass basically.

Friend: Yeah, I think that is the best rebuttal. You never really sell yourself as a scientist or whatever. Honestly this makes me question psychological diagnoses in general.

M.E.: Why? By the way, I am too, they seem sketchy. But then they are better than thinking we are all the same.

Friend: I don’t know, they seem like a random collection of symptoms.

M.E.: Right, it's not clear to me what being a sociopath really means, e.g. whether it's just a personality type, or caused by low fear response or shallow emotions or whatever, what the boundaries are, the outer limits, the root causes. That's why it would be impossible for me to give a whole and accurate account of what a sociopath is. I can just write about what it feels like to me.

Friend: Yeah.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Responses to a hypothetical

Ok, we had a good split of responses from the hypothetical. There were 60 total. Approximately 29 people identified as sociopathic. Of those 29, six were diagnosed. Only 16 total people total were diagnosed with anything, including sociopathy. If you're curious to see all the responses, here's a link (there are 9000 total words).

My response to the hypothetical was that if extreme pain was an issue, we should pair up empaths with each other. If it is true that they feel each others' pain and find it painful themselves to inflict pain, then when an empath smashes another empath's fingers smashed with a hammer, that should be a twofer in terms of amount of pain juice. So my main thought was, given that we are in this situation, we should handle the task in the most efficient way possible.

I gave the hypothetical to me extreme empath friend. She suggested that she just wouldn't play. She would spend that time trying to find a way out or just die because she didn't think it was likely that we would be released after the fluid was collected anyway. Interestingly, she has always bucked what most people (including me) would just accept as their lot. For instance, as a child she refused to go to Kindergarten until her father started bribing her with coffee.

Her neurotypical significant other said that he would lock himself up in a room and just hope to avoid anybody, maybe even take a nap because that's how he deals with stress.

Using those three responses and what I predicted would be a fourth, I came up with four categories of responses: (1) cooperative (main goal is figuring a way to get it done, not necessarily to hurt people), (2) opposition (active resistance, (3) avoidance (passive resistance or noncompliance), and (4) sadism (primarily concerned with hurting people). I coded the responses accordingly (see document linked above).

Perhaps people who read this blog won't be surprised, but the large majority of sociopaths chose cooperating. As one person put it, once they heard the rules of the game they became "task-oriented." Why is this? I'm not entirely sure, but when presented with a game like this, sociopaths (high-functioning?) seem less likely to challenge the underlying assumption and more likely to find a way to game the system from the inside. As long as I'm pretty sure the game isn't rigged I'm most likely to play by the rules (and do it better than anyone else by being creative) than to completely subvert them. For instance, in my younger days I would scam people all of the time but didn't tend to outright steal from them.

Cooperative sociopaths were either coldly rationale about getting the job done or were trying to game the inherent weaknesses of the set-up. Interestingly while sociopaths seemed intent on trying to game the system, they were also concerned with the noncompliance of others and how they might try to enforce compliance. They treated the exercise as if it was a game of Diplomacy, tending to advocate for a more regimented and organized approach with due care to isolate the victims and rabblerousers lest their fear, panic, or rebellion spread. (Prompted by a fear of mob mentality? Desire to keep control of the group?)  While the cooperative sociopaths were concerned with emotions and psychological states to the extent they predicted individual behavior, the sociopaths were not concerned with minimizing psychological or emotional scarring, only physical (and they were oddly concerned about that).

In comparison, non-sociopaths who selected cooperation were often concerned about minimizing pain overall, and even emotional pain. Some were worried about minimizing their own pain or maximizing their own chances of survival. Some were primarily concerned with keeping some measure of at least an illusion of control over the situation, or at least being creative with the solutions to the problem.

Interestingly, most of the non-sociopaths answered both questions (how would you feel and what would you do), whereas far fewer sociopaths bothered to answer how they would feel. Even if the sociopath did address how he would feel, it was often in terms of non-emotional reactions, e.g. being impressed, sighing at the bad luck, or just being angry or frustrated.

More interesting still, when asked to imagine the reactions of their "opposites." sociopaths were most likely to focus on their emotions as opposed to what they would do. In contrast, non-sociopaths focused on what the opposites would do, not what they would feel. This suggests that sociopaths tend to see non-sociopaths in terms of their emotional reactions and non-sociopaths see sociopaths in terms of their actions.

Sociopaths also tended to see empath reactions more in terms of group dynamics (e.g., the sociopath would try to predict how they would act as a group), whereas non-sociopaths imagined sociopaths as operating as more of a lone wolf. Again, this is probably true to life -- statistically this situation would have only 1 or 2 sociopaths and the main thrust of the group dynamic would be from non-sociopaths.

I was pleased to see that empaths (at least the ones who visit this site) didn't assume that sociopaths would be uniformly sadistic. Rather, most of them correctly predicted that sociopaths would be rational and efficient (only two sociopaths were coded as sadistic, the other two sadistic responders were BPD and narcissism).

My favorite response about what your opposite might do was from an aspie: "I honestly have little idea."

Thanks for participating!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sociopath and autistics go together like...

There have been a lot of responses form yesterday's hypothetical and the responses keep coming, so I thought I would continue it another day (not everyone reads this blog every day?) until I post the responses.

In the meantime, here is another audience participation invitation from a journalist looking to investigate, among other things, the sociopathy and autism communities:

I recently graduated from journalism school and am, for now, a freelance journalist. I write mainly about social issues and behavior. Here’s a story of mine from January on sex trafficking.

After hearing an interview with M.E. on NPR, I spent some time reading up on ASPD and digging around Sociopath World. I’d like to write a narrative feature about  ASPD and want to speak with someone who’s been diagnosed with an antisocial disorder, or someone whose family member (or significant other, close friend, etc.) has. I’m in a fairly early stage of reporting, and haven’t yet determined the angle, but I’m most interested (I think) in two issues:

  1. The relationship between the ASD and ASPD communities.
  2. Innovative and/or progressive methods of treating ASPD. I realize not everyone treats personality disorders, but, obviously, some people do. Treatment could mean medication, therapy, or even personal philosophies for living with/among empaths (and other non-empaths, too, possibly).

Please let me know if you're interested in talking. You can email me at Thanks very much.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A hypothetical

A reader sent me this hypothetical that I thought was interesting enough to share with all of you before I give my answer (based on the movie Vile):

"A group of friends stop to pick up a hitchhiking woman only to end up getting drugged by her with a gas. They awaken to find that vials have been implanted in the base of their skulls - which are of course instantly fatal if they are removed, a grinning professional looking woman informs them on TV screens that they have 22hrs to fill these vials with a specific amount of brain fluid, a fluid that is produced during times of extreme pain. Along with another group of unlucky test subjects and with time ticking away they decide to work together and share the burden of reaching their painful target."

I was wondering how you would feel in that type of situation, and what you would do. 

The house is filled with all kinds of tools, from pliers to grills, as well as vats of acid. Pretty much all of your standard household tools and machinery. 

Not only did I think it was an interesting hypothetical, I thought it might serve as sort of a Rorschach test for different minds. I wondered what you all would say in response to that hypothetical. But I don't want you to influence each other or submit to peer pressure. So I set up a Google Docs form where you can respond completely anonymously. I'll collect the responses and publish a sampling tomorrow along with my own answer.

The link to the form is here.

Or here:

Monday, February 17, 2014

Quote: new things

"And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them."

-- Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli 

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I was half watching Olympic curling recently. I tried to figure out what the announcers were talking about, i.e. what the rules/scoring are. It usually seemed good when you managed the other team's stones, but also not always? And I know people say this all of the time about curling, but there's something a little ridiculous about it, especially the broom people, and particularly in comparison to events like slalom skiing and skeleton (which are dangerous, but again not that serious in the big scheme of things). So I was watching these curlers who look like soccer moms and there's all of this weird vocalizing and references to weird pieces of nomenclature that when the announcers started flipping out about something being a huge mistake I just laughed. How could anything that has to do with curling be labeled a "huge mistake"?

This was not like my friend who, while driving, failed to properly look both directions at a stop sign, pulled out, got hit by a huge truck and killed his friend who was a passenger. Or my other friend who killed his wife in a hiking accident by causing a rockslide. I once saw an interview with a girl who was jumping from rock to rock on the top of a cliff. Due to an optical illusion, she thought that the mountains on the horizon were rocks that were just a meter in front of her. and jumped off a cliff. She's now paralyzed. Those things seem closer to being labeled "huge mistakes". Maybe not even those? Economists have argued (and empirics support) that people have a set baseline of happiness -- that despite major positive and negative changes in their lives, they will eventually (6 mos?) coast back down or up to their previous level of happiness. I know my friends who have killed people don't feel like their lives have been ruined (although the families of the deceased might think differently). And the girl from the interview said she was also very happy. Things just don't seem to matter as much as people fear they will, particularly since with few exceptions all of us will be forgotten in as little as a hundred years (Along these same lines, Downton Abbey juxtaposes the perceived domestic "tragedies" of a missing footman with true tragedies like war to great effect).

I always tell my anxiety prone friend to not think about the future in terms of the next few decades. Otherwise she tends to over-estimate how terrible it will be to live without her ex that she just broke up with because he takes her current sadness levels and multiplies it out 365 days a year, for however many decades. And when you think that way, even the smallest setback can seem terribly overwhelming. And it's interesting. In the aftermath of the book release, I've fallen way behind in answering emails from this site (maybe 5-6 months delay?). Often people who write to me very upset about something. I write them back 5 months later and get no answer. There are a lot of ways to read this, but mostly I think that it's because the issue is no longer relevant. And maybe it's no longer relevant because the horrible thing they were fearing happened and there's nothing that can be done to fix it, but I tend to think that it's because the problems that so bothered the person turned out to not be as serious/destructive/long-lasting as they thought it was or would be. Most of the people who break up with sociopaths don't really care much about them after some time. They move on. (There are some notable exceptions). Most people who are hurt by sociopaths move on. Stuff sorts itself out and more pressing matters take one's attention from the past, which I don't think is a bad thing. Sometimes it really can be helpful to imagine your future in terms of where will you be a few decades from now. Things that seem like mistakes or tragedies now may be so insignificant as to be forgotten by then.

And that's what I thought about as I heard the announcers lament such a terrible mistake in curling, a mistake that I wasn't even able to recognize, much less understand. I guess that's another thing that rubs me the wrong way about the social shaming -- I think that a large part of the urge to social shame or otherwise morally judge people as "guilty" and deserving of punishment is a secret fear of the but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I type.

People that seem most inclined to make moral condemnations also seem most self-assured that everyone has free will and a large amount of control over their lives. These moral condemners tend to think that people get what they deserve (for good or ill) because it supports the idea that they have earned the good things in their life solely through their own ingenuity and hard work. And if they have earned the goods things in life, that means they have succeeded in a way, particularly if you measure success in terms of home size, discretionary income, and how well one's children do in school. (Interestingly, to most of these people it's no longer considered a moral "failure"to have one's marriage fail, although to be laid off from one's job often still is.) And all of those things are important because not everyone has them, so that makes you better.

See, that's the tricky thing -- if you have a long term perspective about the negative things, that means you also will have a long term perspective about the positive things. If you feel like a mistake in the Olympics won't make or break your life, maybe you also won't believe that a score on a standardized test should be able to make or break your life, which might take away some of your self-justification for feeling better than other people. So they are faced with a conundrum: they can admit to themselves that most mistakes (theirs or others) are not really important when seen in perspective, but that would mean also acknowledging that most of their successes (theirs or others) are not important either.  I feel like for some of these people who love to harp on the mistakes of others, this moralistic urge comes from a fear that if they acknowledge that a gross mistake today will not seem like anything in a decade, they will also have to give up their joy at what seems a great success today. And that belief just leads to nihilism, because what is the point if you can't even feel that you're much (any?) better at life than your average homeless person.

If there were no Olympics, what would be the point of skiing down mountains fast or directing a stone true to its target? How would we know who is better and who is not?

(Cue the defensive comments and/or personal attacks from people whose world views do not permit such perspectives?)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sociopath like me

I recently got my waterproof iPod replaced under the warranty. They must have given me one that had been returned, because it had all of this music from the band Skillet and its ilk, which I have not really listened to before. Rather than change the music to my own, I've been listening to this music, trying to imagine what life must have been like for this guy (I assume male, statistically), who happened to have gotten this iPod, perhaps for Christmas, then decided he'd rather have something else instead. When I swim laps to his music selected largely by tempo rather than artistry, I feel like a meathead, and it's a nice change of pace.

This happened to me once years ago when I had bought a used ipod from a friend of a friend (a Brooklyn hipster before anyone knew what that was). I would wander the streets of my city listening to Sufjan Stevens, Xiu Xiu, and Neko Case. It was so fascinating to me to make that the soundtrack of my life for those months. For one, my music taste was for once very of the moment. For two, it happens to be very easy to to get concert tickets for up and coming acts before they've made it national, which was fun to see these artists in very intimate settings. But I also just felt like I was peeking into the head of this particular guy. The songs he chose to exclude from albums told me as much about him as the ones chose to include. (Also, the experience made me wonder, does absolutely everyone have a Michael Jackson song tucked away on a laptop or MP3 player somewhere?_

You learn a lot from people by stepping into their shoes for a little bit. I know there is a mix of people who read this blog: some who identify as sociopaths, some with other diagnoses, some who love/hate a sociopath, and some who are just curious. This invitation is probably most directed to the curious.

People have often opined to me that sociopaths are hated because the particular individual does bad things, not because the diagnosis itself maligned and misunderstood. In my own personal experience, this doesn't ring true -- there seems to be quiet a bit of pejorative force to the label/diagnosis. (I had a long holiday conversation with a cousin whom I hadn't seen in a couple years. He told me how he spent a long weekend worrying about how I might try to kill him or his children, finally deciding that it was not too likely.)

So here's the invitation: pretend to be a sociopath. Do like the guy in Black Like Me. Act otherwise completely like yourself but with this additional label. I'm curious to see what people think about what it feels like to have people see you through the lens of that label.

And as a parting gift, this classic from Bobby Caldwell who was advised to disguise his whiteness.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Morality changing according to context

I thought this article defending Twitter outrage was interesting, perhaps largely because I finally understood why people defend mob mentality (short answer, at its best it is one of the few purely democratic versions of social advocacy and activism). First, to his credit, I was heartened to see the author acknowledge how dangerous Twitter mobs can be for even "ordinary" people ("All the while aware that if we get it wrong, at some point Twitter may turn our way, set to destroy. No one is off-limits."). But he argues that this is (1) not unique to Twitter and (2) not a downside, but a feature of the Twitter/Internet mob:

If the ruthlessness on Twitter shocks you, well, it isn’t a ruthlessness only found there. This ruthlessness is everywhere—you may be projecting. Our economy and political system operate on a lack of forgiveness. We bring our children up now with zero-tolerance policies in the schools—can we really be surprised if we and they use them elsewhere? One bad credit report, one bad night at the hospital with a $30,000 bill and no insurance, one firing, one bad book, one bad tweet and you’re gone, consigned to a permanent underclass status forever. No way out. Our president had to make a deal with a few major companies to hire the long-term unemployed because not having a job became the quickest way to never get hired—we’ll see if the companies follow through. If there’s no forgiveness online it’s because there’s no examples of forgiveness anywhere in American life.

Meanwhile, underneath the prevalence of the public apology is a great public wrong. And so we, the public, we want someone to do something. We want the offending column fixed, the black woman comedian hired, the bill to pass, banks to lend safely, clean drinking water, health care, a job, even just a book recommendation we can count on. We want action on whatever it is, and we go to Twitter for it, feed fatigue and all, because there, unlike just about everywhere else, we still get what we’re after.  Twitter, for all the ridiculousness there, is one of the few places where there’s accountability at all for any of this. While it may feel dangerous that no one is above being taken down by Twitter, it also means that in its way, it is the one truly democratic institution left. It may be terrifying that it is the one place you have to be more careful than most, but that is also why, for now, it still matters.

So in the first paragraph he argues that Twitter social shaming is no different than any other ruthlessness we encounter in real life, e.g. become a felon and become politically disenfranchised. But then in the next paragraph he says that Twitter is there so we can actually right these wrongs. And the great thing about Twitter is that "we, the public" decide which wrongs deserve to be righted through social shaming and which we don't care as much about. (Interestingly, that's also how the ancient Romans determined which gladiators lived or died -- following the desires of the mob. Also interestingly, there was a far greater uproar about a racist tweet referencing the AIDS crisis in Africa then there ever were outraged tweets about the AIDS crisis in Africa. Also "we, the public" was also how we oppressed gay people, kept down black people, and hunted communists for decades.)

The problem with this line of thought is that Twitter isn't actually a democracy, primarily because Twitter and all other mobs = unconstrained lawlessness. Democracies abide by rules and procedures, and that goes double for justice systems within democracies. Twitter does not. No one is counting votes. No one is making sure that no one is voting twice or unduly influencing others to vote their conscience. In fact, there is every evidence that people fear the social shaming mob and consequently self-censor and sanitize themselves on Twitter and other social media so as not to become collateral damage (even the author of the original article admitted that he kept himself from tweeting certain things, afraid that "someone would get unreasonably angry at me for it" and argues at the end that he has to be more careful on Twitter than he is in other forums). And what are the rules or procedures for determining who deserves our collective ire? Is it the person without insurance with the large hospital bill? Any more or less so than the woman who tweets racist jokes? The child who has violated the zero tolerance policy at school? Should we forgive one and not the others? Does it depend on if the person without insurance couldn't obtain insurance or if they were just too lazy or cheap to get it themselves? Or if the child came from a disadvantaged background? Or if the racist joke was tongue in cheek? Or if it was made right before a transcontinental flight without Wifi? And how can we make these nuanced determinations in a way that ensures some degree of due process? And is there an Twitter Innocence Project out there exonerating those that have been socially shamed but are more innocent than we originally believed? Or are we pretty sure that mobs never make mistakes? If someone hits economic rockbottom, they could always declare bankruptcy, which disappears after a certain number of years. This and other legal safeguards blunt the ruthlessness of much of life. Are there similar safeguards for people who commit social or political gaffes? Or is that the lowest people can go in our eyes?

I guess I don't quite understand this aspect of the author's pro-Twitter activism position -- is he pro or anti ruthlessness in life/Twitter? And could it be that people are ruthless on Twitter not just because they are honestly attempting to right public wrongs but because they like it and because they can and because they don't have to face the same consequences for their actions that they might normally? And if so, maybe people can understand a little better why I enjoy ruining people (see also feature comment).

Ryan Holiday references the above video:

As Louis CK put it, in our cars we seem to have a different set of values, values that apparently make it OK to be absolutely horrible towards other people. But that’s not the only place. Think about all the angry, vitriolic comments you read on the internet. People do it because they can. Because it’s anonymous and they know they won’t face any real consequences saying awful things to other people. There’s countless situations like this, we change our values because we have tacit permission to be terrible, and because no one will hold us accountable.

We tell ourselves that this is cathartic but it’s really not. Has anyone ever really felt better after punching a pillow? Or does this actually make us more angry? Does yelling really express your frustration or manifest more of it? Do you criticize the person you’re in a relationship with because it’s necessary or because it’s possible? Do you take advantage of people simply because you know you have power over them?

When deprived of these options, what do we do instead? Usually nothing. We ignore the temptation of those impulses. In the best cases, we’re left with feelings that we must address instead of blasting them at other people.

It’s a lesson all of us should consider whenever we lash out, get short, or angry with other people. Are we doing it out of genuine necessity, or are we doing it because in that context, we can? If it’s the latter, let’s question in it. Let’s ask if it’s really something we want to have in our lives and if we’d feel better if the “permission” was magically rescinded.

From Louis CK "I'd like to think I'm a nice person, but I don't know man."

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Recently I have been struggling to keep a particular (and essential) professional relationship in any sort of equilibrium. If I act too professionally, I am considered cold. If I get too friendly, I'm accused of "handling" this person, of pretending I like them just to get them to produce better/more work. This person insists that I instead be completely honest and only do anything nice or social with them if I actually "want to," as opposed to merely keeping the wheels greased in our professional relationship. You can of course guess how this person reacts, though, when I am really honest, e.g. telling them that actually I don't want to go out to dinner every weekend and would really rather keep the relationship more professional, etc. Complicating issues is that this person has basically guessed who I am, or at least is aware of some of my more dominant characteristics; in fact, until recently we have laughed and joked about my ruthlessness around the office. And finally, the cherry on top is that this person is an aspie, and not just an aspie but a high strung, short-tempered, angry and emotionally oversensitive aspie. (Either it is my profession, my personality, or both that seemingly make me an aspie magnet).

I have put up with so much in this relationship -- accepted basically every idiosyncrasy of this person and adapted to it. For my part, I get criticized and apologize daily for small hurts I have "inflicted." But if I ever so much as refer to any of Aspie's numerous failings, I am accused of kicking someone while they're down. Aspie wants us to be "besties" instead of "frenemies" or even "water cooler colleagues", but I'll never be truly close with someone for whom I have to not only custom-tailor every response in a way that feels so unnatural to me, but also fabricate an elaborate fiction as to every sanitized-for-consumption thought I never actually had, down to the most intimate detail. I can play make-believe as well as anybody, but there are limits. In the meantime, I desperately need Aspie's technical skills in a very time-sensitive project, so I grovel when I need to, and screen calls when I can't muster up anything else. (Aspie if you are reading this, please do not find where I live and kill me and then you in a murder/suicide).

A reader presents what I thought was a relatively similar situation:
I think my ex-boyfriend might be a sociopath, and to be honest with you I don't really care all that much. We're still friends, but I seem to keep setting myself in the line of fire and getting hurt in some fashion. The result is me being upset and him being frustrated because he feels that I have no reason to be upset, and he doesn't think that he did anything wrong.

I want to make our friendship work, because like it or not...I'm hopelessly addicted to this boy - to the point that I don't even care how he feels about me. If he is a sociopath, then I'll know, and I'll be able to tailor what I say and do accordingly in the interests of avoiding future confrontations of the same nature.

We get in disputes, and he somehow knows exactly what to say to end it. Whether it's an apology, a promise, etc...But I always get this weird feeling about it. He's very attentive when I explain how I felt wronged, but not because he feels bad that I feel that way- because he's trying to dissect the feeling that I'm having, so that he can calculate what to say that will counter it. Then he'll come up with a conclusion that he thinks completely solves the problem, and it does - but I always get this underlying feeling of contempt from him. Like he sees me as some sort of authority figure that he's trying to outsmart.
You said: "Like he sees me as some sort of authority figure that he's trying to outsmart." He probably does feel that, in a way. He has to edit himself, restrict himself, and sugarcoat himself for everyone else that he probably resents when he has to do it around you too. He probably thinks that since he accepts and accommodates everything about you, why can't you do the same?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


If I had a mind to,
I wouldn't want to think like you.
And if I had time to
I wouldn't want to talk to you.

I don't care
What you do,
I wouldn't want to be like you.
I don't care
What you do,
I wouldn't want to be like you.

If I was high class
I wouldn't need a buck to pass.
And if I was a fall guy,
I wouldn't need no alibi...

I don't care
What you do,
I wouldn't want to be like you.
I don't care
What you do,
I wouldn't want to be like you.

Back on the bottom line,
Diggin' for a lousy dime.
If I hit a mother lode,
I'd cover anything that showed.

I don't care
What you do,
I wouldn't want to be like you.
I don't care
What you do...
I wouldn't wanna,
I wouldn't want to be like you.
I wouldn't want to be like you.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Temptation and opportunity costs

I'm currently a point that a lot of my socio readers are when they write in to me. I am tired, bored, my life seems meaningless. For the past couple weeks I have only been going through the motions, using all of my will power to do the smallest things to sustain my career, my reputation, my relationships, my wealth, but I feel like it is all pointless, like trying to bail out the Titanic. Nothing seems sustainable to me right now. Everything seems like a potential liability or accident waiting to happen.

It's disturbing to me how demanding my id is right now. I have no desire to maintain anything I've built, to continue living this particular role. But I know that at my age and station, I don't have many more do overs, if any at all. And I wonder this current situation warrants one. I think if I could just start playing a game or otherwise indulging some of my more basic needs, it will distract me from my ennui and disgust with life and I'll be able to keep things together.

Making things worse is that there is already a perfect target on the horizon, someone who could start falling into my hands today if I want. This person could ruin me. I don't remember the last time I felt so enticed by a person, but in all other respects this person could not be worse for me to target, not if I want to keep living roughly the same life that I have been living. So that is the issue. I need a game to amuse me, something to engage me in this life I have, but in order to maintain this life I can't target my most appealing opportunity.

Do you know who I now understand? I understand all those people who are married, maybe kids, some stable normal life and along comes some siren, some cad that they feel inexplicably drawn to. They're seduced. They fight the feelings for a while, they remind themselves of what it would mean to give into temptation, that it's not worth it. But while they are fighting so hard to keep their normal, stable life, they start to resent that life. They resent their spouse and their kids and everything that is keeping them from indulging in what they really want to do. So just at that moment when they need to be trying their hardest to keep what they have, they are valuing that life the lowest. This decreased opportunity cost makes taking the low road a fait accompli.

This is a horrible situation. I'm so disgusted right now. I feel like my "normal" life has made me too much of a eunuch, but also not enough of a eunuch that I am immune to destructive temptations. Socio readers with uncontrollable bloodlust, peadophiles, I feel your pain.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Journalistic justice: a parable of Jean Valjean

Those who have read or seen the various adaptations of the book Les Miserables are probably familiar with the protagonist Jean Valjean. Spoiler alert, he stole some bread, went to prison for a long time, and then was branded for life as a felon, unable to live an honest life because no one would give him a second chance. But that's not where the story stops. Instead of just submitting to his fate, he breaks his parole, changes his name and starts a new, honest life . . . until his past catches up with him, in the form of the justice-hungry watchdog Javert.

Along those same lines, I read a bizarre article in the NY Times lambasting someone who had committed a crime and then attempted to start a new life, "An Inmate and a Scholar". Apparently the triggering event for the article was that this convicted felon (whom I won't name, in an effort to avoid connecting it on Google with the term "sociopath") had published a paper in the Columbia Journal of European Law on Turkish nationals and the EU. The NY Times reporter, Alison Leigh Cowan (who seems to specialize in maligning?), does not suggest that this young man plagiarized, falsified, or otherwise misrepresented himself in the paper. Nor does she allege that he has done anything wrong in the recent past (apart from the activities leading to his conviction) so much as she insinuates that his past makes him an inappropriate candidate for a legitimate future as a barrister/scholar.

The facts of our inmate/scholar are basically these: he is the child of a conwoman. He perpetrated a Ponzi scheme at the age of 19. After a confession/conviction ("I did what I did") and serving his time, he was deported (Turkish national). Any money he earns beyond satisfying his basic needs is earmarked to repay his Ponzi scheme victims. In the decade since, he has graduated with honors from prestigious European schools. His applications to these schools were open about his past -- he referenced it in his application essays and his former lawyers wrote letters of recommendation. He did not tell everything to everyone, though, and that is not enough for our intrepid reporter.

Reporter Cowan works hard to suggest that she has caught him red-handed trying to escape from his past. For instance, she mentions that he added a middle name that is not reflected in his American official paperwork -- a clear sign that he is hiding something. She liberally quotes from classmates that found it "shocking" to learn that he an ex-con (shout out to my former classmates who may have found it "shocking" that I had been diagnosed as a sociopath, or to my gay friend's former classmates who might find it "shocking" to find that he is married to a man, or my transgender friend's former classmates who might find it "shocking" to discover that he is no longer a woman.) Despite people's alleged shock at having known an ex-con (?), none of his friends or associates suggested that he ever materially misrepresented himself. And do we have a duty to disclose everything about ourselves to everyone we meet? Cowan goes into great detail about whether or not the inmate/scholar was supposed to check a box on his school applications for certain types of past criminal convictions, but ultimately comes up with nothing, at least in my opinion. (The school defined relevant convictions as "offenses of a violent or sexual nature against a person, or something on the order of drug trafficking," and cautioned prospective students against overdisclosing in violation of the Data Protection Act of 1998). So apart from a general reluctance to expose more about his history than absolutely necessary, that's it for his bad behavior. And as one of his mentors said:

“Here’s a guy who paid a very heavy price and is trying to put his life back together. . . . It’s not that he’s averse to publicity and trying to hide . . . but he’s trying to survive.”

It's hard to read Cowan's article and not wonder what the NY Times found print-worthy about this tale. Although Cowan's reporting style is just-the-facts, it is still manipulatively written to suggest that the inmate/scholar has done something wrong in attempting to move on with his life in the way he has. And in doing so, Cowan joins other journalists (Caleb Hannan, and others) who have chosen to make torrid details of people's personal lives international news. I understand that part of journalism is incidentally ruining people's lives (interestingly, journalism is considered one of the top 10 professions for sociopaths), but there doesn't seem to be anything incidental about this (similar to the Essay Anne Vanderbilt story). Rather, ruining a life seems to be the point of this particular story. And why? This type of public shaming is even more difficult for me to understand than the typical ruin-someone's-life Twitter justice you see against people who violate social norms (possible racism and the too-soon). Is this just blatant journalistic pandering to the desire of the proletariat to be an armchair judge/jury/executioner? Or is Cowan just a Javert type who believes that people shouldn't be able to run from their past?

Why do I care about this story? There is the public shaming thing, of course, but his story speaks to me more personally as well. This guy seems to be a young sociopath figuring things out: his mother was a conwoman, he was a very talented conman, he was described by federal investigators as "brilliant and probably capable of doing anything," and according to the NY Times, his sentencing judge:

did not doubt his desire to reform, but she worried if “in point of fact, he doesn’t yet know how.” His “moral compass,” she said, was simply “not present or not functioning." 

So this story struck a personal note with me, as someone who has also had my career prospects ruined, at least to a certain extent. But at least I sort of brought it on myself. This guy just committed a crime and paid for it. He didn't ask to have the media hound him for the sordid details of his past.

But this problem of trying to escape from a past is not isolated to sociopaths, or even to wrongdoers. Everyone makes mistakes of varying degrees or chooses to live a different way, unfettered by constraints from the past. How much should that keep them from having functional adult lives? Some jurisdictions are instituting a right for young people to wipe their digital slates clean, so youthful indiscretions wouldn't unduly limit their life options. But that policy is only viable if no reporter can come along decades later and use that information against you. Should we believe that people are redeemable or not? Apparently most of the inmate/scholar's classmates did, or at least they said that they “judged him only on the present," and found him to be an exceptionally friendly and helpful classmate. Unfortunately, present performance is often not good enough for the Javert types who are looking for their pound of flesh.

See also Anne Perry (especially the comments section of the video clip, which are predictably all over the map).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Believing in evil

A reader asked me if I believed in evil, and whether that has anything to do with my feelings on religion. I don't really feel that there is evil, like in a normative, pejorative sense. I do believe in opposites, light and dark, pleasure and pain, in other words things that could not really exist without the contrast of their absence. How could there even be a concept "light" if there is no concept "dark"?

But to think of them as "opposites" or diametrically opposed is also inaccurate, I think, because although light may be the "opposite" of dark, they have much more in common with each other than light does with, for example, either pleasure or pain. In my mind they are more like two sides of the same coin, opposite in only the most technical, narrow definition. So I guess I believe in good and evil, but they are also sort of interchangeable to a certain extent, and I personally wouldn't necessarily know whether something was good or evil, or whether anything ever has an inherent quality of good or evil about it. So I guess to me the issue of whether there is good and evil is sort of moot because it has no practical relevance to my life. Or it probably actually does, I’m sure, in some earth spins once every 24 hours sort of way.

As to the religion, I feel like my life is like a big game of Blindman's Bluff and I’m "it". I’m not sure why I’m playing it and the targets seem to always be moving. Believing the religion is sort of like thinking that eventually I’ll get to take the blindfold off and see things as they truly are. It seems like a plausible belief to me, although certainly not convincing. Having at least one part of me believe it gives me a lot more patience for what seems like a very tiresome endeavour. I guess I get the same sort of pleasure in living my religion that I get from saving for my retirement (which was already fully-funded by the time I was 30). Only part of me actually believes I will live to retirement age, but it's such a small sacrifice to put away a little money here and there. And if I do actually retire, that would have been a very "smart" thing for me to do. In other words, it’s just another version of playing the game well, capitalizing on all available opportunities, and coming up with back-up plans. And, of course, it has its perks.

(Like free exorcisms.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Female and sociopath: double-edged sword

There was something about this comment that I thought illustrated well how a female sociopath both plays to and fights against gender-based expectations:


I assure you I am not deeply sad or troubled.

Actually, I feel pretty. Very pretty. I think you would find me very pretty too.

I can look deeply into your eyes and immediately find your gentle, delicate soul. I will know exactly how you wish to be held, caressed.

My touch will be tender as I run my hands over the soft swell of your adorable derriere. My lips moist and yielding. My tongue hot and seeking.

You will want to consume me, but I will consume you.

Now that I have your attention, please take note: I do not want or need your pity, unless, of course, I can use it to my advantage.


Friday, February 7, 2014

How do you cope?

From a reader:

A little bit of background on me; I'm 27, male and I've been trying to figure out what is wrong with me since middle school. At first I thought it was my upbringing - and I'm still curious if that played a role in how I've turned out. I had a tough childhood, and I was forced to become defensive at home and at school. More recently I'm noticing that; as far as I can tell I don't connect with people or have the same emotions or thought processes they do.

It has worked out for me fairly well in my professional life, I tend to advance quickly in the things that I do, because I have an innate understanding of what people want. In my personal life, it's just about destroyed it. It's not so much that I attack people, I do subtly manipulate relationships in my personal life - and much more in my professional life. The problem is I can't relate to people, I can't relate to their emotions at all. There are times I feel like I should be sad, because I can tell everyone else is sad, but I'm not. The emotions I generally feel strongest are anger and frustration, or irritation.

I feel like I can only juggle a handful of relationships, otherwise it's too much to keep up with and process. I guess what I'm getting at is this; if I told people how I really felt, or what I thought about life, and how they go about their lives, they would be horrified. If I acted as I feel I should, and I were really how I am, they would not want to know me. It's not that I'm aggressive, or violent, but I don't understand how they think. Everything seems to go through some sort of filter and come out dirtier than when it went in. Personally, I think in terms of A+B=X, about almost everything - including relationships.

So I guess my question is, how do you cope with this? Was there a time where you just decided to accept who and what you are? I don't know if I'm a sociopath, I don't really understand any of it, mostly because I don't have anything to compare it to. It would be helpful to understand where you're coming from, and possibly other sociopaths as I might actually relate to it.

My response:

This sounds very close to my own experience, although I couldn't say for sure whether that makes you a sociopath. I don't know if anyone really accepts himself completely. The problem with the idea of finding yourself (perhaps particularly if you're a sociopath) is that you're aiming for a moving target. But I think you'll be surprised that many people will be able to understand you or at least accept the bulk of you if you are honest with them -- particularly those who are most empathetic, oddly enough. Many of the people you tell may disappoint you, but you at least have the option. Should we see what other people think?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Television: American Horror Story, Coven

American Horror Story Coven is about a group of witches who had long been the target of... well, witch-hunts. Eventually (small spoiler), they come out via television interview:

MAN: Since your extraordinary public statement last month, there has been quite a bit of fanfare.

This frank revelation about your cult-- that's sparked quite a brouhaha in the media, and...

WITCH-LEADER: Let me clarify that, Bill.

We are not a cult.

We-we don't proselytize.

We have no agenda, we're not recruiting.

Women who identify as witches are born as such, and their abilities-- which we call powers-- are part of who they are, part of their DNA, if you will.

MAN: Oh, I see. So, in fact, you're saying that it's not a choice, being a witch.

WITCH-LEADER: That's exactly what I'm saying.

There are so many young witches who have resisted their calling because they're afraid... of how they may be perceived,
or what's expected of them.

But there are still hate crimes.

That is true, but, you know, when you hide in the shadows, you are less visible, you have less protection.

We'll always be targets for the ignorant.

It is what it is.

But we are strong women, Bill.

So, what would you like to say to all those girls watching and wondering if they might be witches?


Call us, e-mail us or just come to New Orleans.

There is a home and a family waiting for you.

Parallels to sociopaths? Particularly the idea about hiding in the shadows versus coming out into the open?

Some viewers criticized the scene as a too blatant allusion to gay rights. Others criticized the plausibility of accepting witches into society:

In the final episode, the [Witch-leader] goes on TV and gives an interview. The scene equals witches to gay people, but like True Blood before it, this show didn't get that while people are stupid to fear LGBTQ people, they are most certainly NOT to fear witches, as we've been repeatedly shown this season that they are really likely to abuse their powers. 

See even more parallels to sociopaths now? But it's interesting how this commenter has misinterpreted what the Witch-leader is really saying. No one said anything about not fearing witches. In fact, she explicitly says, "It it what it is." Similarly, no one has said that there is no reason to fear sociopaths (or vampires, to tie in True Blood). Rather, she seems to merely clarifying misconceptions -- that witches don't choose to be witches, but rather are born with it.

But maybe if there isn't a clear parallel to gay rights, there is a legitimate parallel to rights of the mentally ill? Maybe, like with the witches, there are some reasons to fear the mentally ill, or at least take a certain level of care with them. But what next? Even if it is understandable or even right for people to fear the mentally ill, what should we do about that? Permit hate crimes against them? Weed these disorders out of the gene pool through forced sterilization? Assuming the worst (e.g, these people might hurt you or a loved one), what would you do to ensure that never happens?

And what, then, would be your criterion for doing the same to all other people you don't like, but would still manage to exempt all the people you do like. I'm honestly curious. What are people's proposals?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sociopath quote: power as art

I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies.

-Napoleon Bonaparte

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

J'Accuse: Twitter justice

As a sort of follow up to yesterday's post that referenced justice and mercy from a religious standpoint, I thought this piece on the Dylan Farrow open letter accusing Woody Allen of molesting her was interesting. Under the title, "The kangaroo court of Twitter is no place to judge Woody Allen":

First off, I don't know if Woody Allen abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow and nor do you. I only know what I am inclined to believe and what the reasons are. Those reasons are, in fact, opinions. Some are to do with this particular case, some with the way that victims of abuse are routinely dismissed, some with the way Hollywood operates. Some are to do with the films he makes – the texts themselves – and some with the context: the context in which so many perpetrators walk free. That context is changing.

When the custody battle between Farrow and Allen took place in 1992, social media was not around. Right now online, especially on Twitter, many people are absolutely certain that Allen is guilty. Just as they are absolutely certain that Amanda Knox is guilty, just as they will be absolutely certain that what I am saying here is wrong. There is not a lot of nuance in Hashtag Justice. There is a hashtag #IBelieveDylanFarrow.

I hesitate (just slightly) to write again about social shaming as an increasingly prevalent method of enacting mob justice. But I thought this case provided an opportunity to share a parallel example of a legal point of view -- the infamous Dreyfus Affaire, in which a French Jewish artillery officer was railroaded by a corrupt justice system because people were so certain he was guilty of his alleged crime (espionage). Evidence was falsified and secret court proceedings were held to accommodate the feelings of the masses. As Emile Zola argued in his own open letter to a newspaper, "J'accuse":

“Above all beware of this line of the reasoning . . . : ‘It is possible that Dreyfus was convicted illegally, but it was justly done; that is enough.’ . . . It is a serious error. . . . See to it that the supremacy of the law is undisputed, and through the law rid our hearts of this respect for reasons of state that is absurd in a democracy.”

What Zola is describing is the very definition of a kangaroo court -- picking an outcome, and then coming up with a procedure that will guarantee this outcome. Zola was arguing against this method of justice because we will almost never be able to determine "the truth" with absolute certainty. Since we will almost never know (or agree) about who should be punished, why, and how much, our only hope is to ensure that we follow fair procedures for determining guilt. In the United States this idea is enshrined in the Due Process clause of the Constitution, which guarantees that nobody shall be deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of the law. There is no constitutional guarantee that the justice system accurately identify wrongdoers or uniformly dispense justice for the simple reason that it would be impossible to do so. But we are seeing a resurgence of the idea that mob justice can be real justice. This is why the Dreyfus Affaire is perhaps more relevant now than ever. As Adam Gopnik argues in his review of Louis Begley's, “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters”:

It showed that a huge number of Europeans, in a time largely smiling and prosperous, liked engaging in raw, animal religious hatred, and only felt fully alive when they did. Hatred and bigotry were not a vestige of the superstitious past but a living fire—just what comes, and burns, naturally. 

Sound familiar? It reminded me of this comment from yesterday's post:

It's important to delineate sociopathic impulses and "emotional overload". Sociopathic impulses have a basis on having a lack of emotional barriers (ie. regret, grief, and remorse) which would typically inhibit/prevent fulfilling the impulse. Emotional overload have a basis on overwhelming rational barriers (ie. logic, situational awareness).

So I understand why sociopaths can be scary -- we don't have any of the emotional barriers. But empaths can be scary too, especially when their emotional sense of right and wrong overwhelms rational barriers.
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